By: Joyce Lubeck-Sonenberg, FAS Senior Consultant
It should come as no surprise that working in a typical school financial aid office can be, well… challenging. Stepping into any FA office near the start of a new term, one can easily see why this can be so. It’s a busy place. Several students may be at the front counter, telephones are ringing, often incessantly, and the office email inbox is bursting at the seams. While positive customer service skills are always important in the FA office, there are moments when staff skills are tested. Developing positive, professional, and enduring customer service skills takes time, training, patience, and practice. The provision of regular training or quick refresher sessions can help to maintain customer service skills at a level that benefits both staff and students and allows a better experience for all.
A literal cornucopia of customer service training opportunities is available to sharpen the skills of the FA staff. The internet is loaded with blogs, webinars, and interactive training events. Following are just a few tips gleaned from a variety of those resources.
Maintain a Welcoming Environment – Ensure staff demonstrates a friendly, welcoming reception. Greet with a smile and a warm, genuine “Hello, how are you? Welcome to the FA Office. How can I help you today?” Sure, it sounds simple, but a positive tone has been established and instantly shows a level of respect. The first staff person a student or parent sees is the first representative of the office and the entire school and should possess a “helping” type attitude.
Let’s face it… the FA world is a regulatory quagmire. Documents must be signed and submitted. Eligibility must be established. Policy and procedures are to be followed. Mistakes are made, information and instructions can be confusing, and a student or parent can become irate, rude, unhappy and sometimes abusive. No one enjoys those situations but remember… it’s not personal.
Don’t Take It Personally - The upset student is unhappy and frustrated about a problem.
They are venting their anger to the staff person. They don’t even know them. They are angry about a situation that either happened or didn’t happen. Listen to the concern. Dig into the problem. Once it is in proper perspective, the student should be informed about what can be done to help with the issue, not what can’t be done. For example, if a document is required, don’t simply say they must submit the document.
Identify the document, make it available, and accept it on the spot.
Ensure the FA Information is Accurate – Double-check that significant dates, times, requirements, amounts, policies, etc., are accurate. It’s frustrating if the information on the FA website is outdated or incorrect. Students and parents expect the FA staff to conduct FA matters professionally. Attention to detail is critical in the FA world, and complacency in this area weakens the image and professional reputation of the office.
Dig Deep to Resolve/Prevent Hidden Problems – Don’t assume the surface problem is the only issue.
Look to multiple screens in the student information software, log notes, or co-workers to ensure all issues are resolved. Ask the student if there is anything else they need, or the staff can assist with before they leave or end a call. Experienced and helpful staff may recognize and resolve a potential problem before it impacts the FA process.
Sympathize and Empathize – There is value in the saying, “Students’ don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Imagine it’s your or a family member’s first experience with higher education, particularly with FA. They may be anxious, frustrated, angry, or dealing with a world they have never entered before. Apologize and acknowledge their feelings. Staff may actually spend 80% of their time massaging feelings and about 20% solving the problem. Feelings are key. Sympathize, empathize, apologize, and immediately follow up with action.
FA staff do not become expert customer service representatives overnight. It takes time, training, and practice to deliver consistent, quality customer service in the FA office. Take the time to review and refresh these and other tips throughout the academic year. Students, parents, and yes… FA staff will all benefit.